New Delhi: Parimpora vegetable and fruit market in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar is one of the largest in Asia, but on a mid-week day not one of its 250 shops was open for business.
It’s been like this since Aug. 5, the day Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked almost seven decades of autonomy held by the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir. The shops are closed in protest, and on Thursday a crowd of more than 40 men gathered in a corner of the market. The anger was palpable.
“The government says they want to improve Kashmir’s economy and remove poverty,” said shop owner Abdul Majeed, 58. “It’s India’s economy that isn’t doing well. Kashmir is a good way to distract Indians.”
Majeed talked above the voices of other vegetable dealers and truckers. Some complained about the lockdown that’s affected every aspect of life and business in the tense region. Others were angry at journalists because Indian television broadcasts—their only source of news after the government intervened—asserted that life was returning to normal, a version of events they strongly dispute.
Foreign reporters have been denied permission to travel to Kashmir, but there are no such restrictions for Indian citizens: More than a dozen flights leave daily from New Delhi. Once in Srinagar, armored vehicles are a common sight. Uniformed men with batons and guns line the city’s main streets. India said on Aug. 2 that it moved an additional 10,000 troops into Kashmir.
Ensuring better governance and greater economic opportunity was the reason given for the surprise move to bring Jammu and Kashmir under Indian federal control. The government did so by scrapping Article 370, which gave the state the right to draft laws in certain areas. Modi hailed a new era ending corruption in Kashmir, while neighboring Pakistan, which also claims the region, denounced the move and sought international support for its stance.
The issue is not merely revoking an article of law granting special status, said Ajaz Ahmed, a 45-year-old truck driver: “It’s the way we were stripped of justice—in the middle of the night and at gunpoint.” Ahmed hasn’t made a single trip since the Kashmir valley shutdown.
Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik, who is appointed on the recommendation of the federal government, told reporters on Wednesday that the restrictions put in place were necessary to prevent civilian casualties from violent protests. The state government has a “massive recruitment drive” planned over the coming two to three months, he said, assuring people that normalcy would soon return.
But that timeline may be optimistic. Tourism vital to the state has been hit: The government recalled foreign tourists before moving in, while Hindu pilgrims visiting an important Shiva shrine in the Himalayan state were asked to return. Elected political leaders, including three former chief ministers, were detained without explanation and their fate remains uncertain. It’s been almost a month since mobile phones and the Internet last worked, although fixed lines were restored after Aug. 17. In all, the lockdown cut communications and movement for about 12.5 million people.
And on the ground, traders and shopkeepers have shut businesses in retaliation. Trucks and taxis are off the roads in spite of the Indian government easing restrictions in some areas. Schools and colleges remain shut. While private cars are in evidence and shops selling household products and food are open in many places, there were very few women and children in main market places. Large bedsheets hang over the windows of many houses to protect them from stones thrown by protesters and the armed forces.
“Things have never been as bad as this year,” said Fayyaz Ahmed, a 50-year-old fruit dealer. “I’m worried for my kids’ futures. So many young boys have been detained by police. Is this how a government removes poverty?”
Ever since its accession to India in 1947, Muslim-majority Kashmir has been the symbol of conflict between India and Pakistan. While Pakistan—formed after India was divided along religious lines—has maintained its support for the state’s demands for self-rule and fought wars with India over the region, it continues to control one part of Kashmir with almost the same rules India has now applied. India has meanwhile struggled to maintain peace in a conflict that has killed more than 42,000 people in three decades.
Yet the assertion that taking tighter control over Kashmir to make it more like any other Indian state is good for its economy is “utter rubbish,” said Haseeb Drabu, the state’s former finance minister who was also the former head of the region’s biggest lender, Jammu & Kashmir Bank.
A previous round of disruptions that lasted for more than 100 days in 2016 cost the state’s economy some $2.2 billion, according to a survey Drabu prepared when finance minister. Today’s Internet shutdown means businesses haven’t been able to make online payments to creditors, suppliers or to pay taxes, while the detention of business leaders without legal recourse has hurt reputations and shattered credit links, he said.
“What you’ve done is you’ve actually impaired the business networks,” said Drabu. “There’s a fat chance anyone from outside the state would want to work with you.”
Scrapping Article 370 and so allowing non-Kashmiris to own property in the state has been a long-standing demand of supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Large Indian companies including Reliance Industries Ltd. have answered Modi’s call for investments, bolstering his argument of economic opportunity.
“We stand committed to support the people of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh in all their developmental needs,” Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani told shareholders Aug. 12.
To Mohammad Ashraf Mir, president of the Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir, one the biggest political and business risks lies in the lack of communication from the federal government in Delhi.
“Even if an Ambani or an Adani wants to invest in Kashmir—and they are all welcome—they will have to work with local people,” said Mir, who said that at least three business leaders he knows have been detained. “Our migrant labor has fled and people are wary of such sudden policies. This sort of thing has never happened before.”
Winning back peoples’ trust is the biggest challenge to restarting economic activity, he said. And that’s not easy given the heavy military presence in the valley.
“We don’t care what happens to our business anymore,” said Mohammad Altaf, 32, a wholesaler. “People are sitting quietly, waiting for this to pass. But it doesn’t mean there’s peace.”
A similarly pessimistic tone was struck by Waseem Dar, 21-year-old fruit vendor who said that his younger brother was detained by police. He suggested that the lifting of restrictions, whenever that may be, won’t mark the return to normalcy many hope for.
“Kashmiris are used to preparing for long winters when snow forces us to wait indoors,” Dar said. “The people can wait.” – Bloomberg
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